Trump or Xi: Which one is really ready to lead?

By Frank Ching

At his inauguration on Jan. 20, Donald Trump delivered an inward-looking speech in which he promised to “make America great again,” without any reference to its friends and allies overseas. Then Trump withdrew the U.S. from what he called the “job-killing” Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation trading bloc that sought to raise standards while excluding China. He also declared the North Atlantic alliance “obsolete.”

This led to howls in Washington and overseas that the U.S. was ceding ground to an expansionist China. Even so, the Chinese declared modestly that they had little interest in succeeding the U.S. as global leader, with a senior Chinese diplomat, Zhang Jun, director-general of the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s international economics department, asserting that China doesn’t want to be the world leader but, if nobody else wanted that job, then China would, reluctantly, play that role. Scarcely six weeks have passed since then. But now, China is showing a definite interest in becoming the world leader, if not a global hegemon. On Feb. 17, Xi Jinping, the Chinese Communist party leader and president, delivered a speech in which he asserted that Beijing should “guide the international community to jointly build a more just and reasonably new world order.” He also declared that China should “guide the international community to jointly maintain international security.” These two goals have been referred to as “two guidances.” However, 11 days later, when Trump delivered his first address to a joint session of Congress, he seemed to move much closer into the mainstream of American politics, including reaffirming multilateral security alliances. “We strongly support NATO, an alliance forged through the bonds of two World Wars that dethroned fascism, and a Cold War, and defeated communism,” he said. He praised America’s allies for meeting their financial obligations to the alliance and added that “the money is pouring in.” He also reaffirmed alliances with countries in the Middle East and the Pacific, calling on them not only to “pay their fair share of the cost” but also “to take a direct and meaningful role in both strategic and military operations.”

“Our allies will find that America is once again ready to lead,” Trump said in one key passage. “All the nations of the world, friend or foe, will find that America is strong, America is proud and America is free.”

Echoes of Previous Inaugural Addresses This key paragraph was an echo of the inaugural address of Barack Obama in 2009 when he said: “We are ready to lead once more.” The second sentence was an echo of John F. Kennedy’s much quoted inaugural address: “Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans.” Using the same metaphor, Trump asserted: “That torch is now in our hands, and we will use it to light up the world.” It must be remembered that it was Kennedy who said, “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” That firm assertion was, if nothing else, a declaration to the world of American leadership.